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Treat your bees, but hold the lithium

This week my inbox is choked with questions about using lithium to treat varroa mites. Although I don’t know a thing about lithium, I feel compelled to answer.

If you haven’t heard, a paper was published on January 12 about lithium chloride as a possible treatment for varroa mites. The peer-reviewed work with the alluring title “Lithium chloride effectively kills the honey bee parasite Varroa destructor by a systemic mode of action1 appeared on Nature.com and is available on line.

The paper is typical of research papers in general and worth a read. I applaud scientific inquiry and find it reassuring that people continue to work diligently on the problems that plague our society.

Beekeepers jumping the gun

But the response I have heard from beekeepers is incomprehensible. People who know nothing about biology, chemistry, or scientific inquiry are making a rush on lithium chloride. People who never heard of a millimole are mixing this stuff up on their kitchen counters with measuring cups and teaspoons. This is insanity.

Others are ripping the paper apart without reading it, claiming the authors are fixated on financial gain (the authors have filed for a patent) or that the study is flawed, incomplete, and conclusory.

The nature of science

One of the things I’ve learned from this website is that people can be divided into groups. There are those who think anything a scientist writes is fact. Another group thinks that anything a scientist writes is a lie. The remaining group gets it. Those people realize that science is a process, a system of discovery. By itself, science is not right or wrong, truth or lie. It is simply a path.

Most everything we know about the universe, including honey bees, comes to us in bits and pieces. In its simplest form, a scientist might notice something; let’s say he sees a correlation between two events. He doesn’t know if one event causes the other or not, but he writes a statement called a hypothesis. Then he designs an experiment to test the truth of his statement.

An old system that works

Now, how to write a good hypothesis and how to design an effective experiment are complex subjects which I won’t attempt to explain. But my point here is that we learn by observing and testing. Sometimes we are proven right and sometimes we fail, but we nearly always learn something in the process.

After you compile and analyze your experimental results, you attempt to get your work published. At reputable scientific journals your work is first reviewed by a panel of experts in your field. If they find obvious holes in your experimental design or your reasoning, they will send it back to you for further work. Or, if you’ve been careful and covered your bases, your work may be published.

And then the hard part

Once your work is published, it becomes a target. Bullets come from every direction. This is an important part of the process for both reader and writer, and the very reason these papers are published in journals.

When I was writing my master’s thesis, I fired multiple bullets (kindly, I hope) into papers I read, and I was amazed at the result. Although a few authors never answered, others patiently explained how I misinterpreted what they had written, while two sheepishly admitted that I was correct in my criticism and had discovered a flaw. This is how science works and it’s exciting.

Brick by brick

To me, a scientific breakthrough is like a brick wall where each brick is built by a different mason. If by some stroke of luck the bricks all fit together, the result is a magnificent structure. Or else the bricks don’t quite interlock, and after a while, the whole thing comes tumbling down. You can’t build higher and higher if the bottom is flawed.

The recent lithium paper is a brick. It is the beginning of a structure that hasn’t yet been built. It is a place to begin further research, an opening into a new area of inquiry, but not the finished product. I have no doubt that others will build on this work. Ultimately, it will lead to a new mite treatment or not. It is fascinating, newsworthy, compelling, but it’s not a done deal.

Be patient: hold the lithium

So in response to the many folks who asked how to do it, I say don’t. In my opinion, you have no business dumping lithium in your bee hive because neither you nor anyone else knows how it will affect your bees or the people who eat your honey.

However, I encourage you to read the paper, ask questions, or suggest improvements in experimental design. Learn as much as you can. Just remember you can’t build a wall with only a single brick, and it’s foolish to anticipate the end if you don’t understand the beginning.


1Ziegelmann B, Abele E, Hannus S, Beitzinger M, Berg S, Rosenkranz P. 2018. Lithium chloride effectively kills the honey bee parasite Varroa destructor by a systemic mode of action. Scientific Reports 8, article number: 683.doi:10.1038/s41598-017-19137-5

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Photo of a large varroa mite showing legs and mouthparts. For now we must hold the lithium.
Hold the lithium chloride for now, but perhaps one day it will provide a treatment for varroa mites. Pixabay photo.

Comments

Liz Bateman
Reply

THANKS for the info on LiCL! After the British study came out, I was wondering, too, but then discovered that dosages have not yet been recommended. That said, (I live in Fairfax, VA) just about everyone I know has lost their hives this winter and it’s only mid-January. Yes, it’s been cold, but I’m sure Vermont has been colder. I treated for mites twice last summer, but still saw some in October – too late to treat. Also, my queen had stopped laying and the population in my nuc was going down. That’s why I think I lost my nuc – just not enough bees to keep it going, though there were plenty of honey stores. What is your advice PLEASE.

Rusty
Reply

Liz,

I don’t have any advice. More colonies will die in super cold weather, especially smaller colonies that don’t have enough bodies to keep the cluster warm. Just like your nuc, even with plenty of honey there weren’t enough bees to keep it going.

Greg p Ringele
Reply

Treating your bee’s at all is crazy!
If everyone stopped treating for varroa, we’d be over them in a few years.

Rusty
Reply

Greg,

I agree that if we could get everyone to stop treating at once, we would eventually get varroa-resistant bees. But I believe honey bee populations would dip dramatically in the intervening years, to the point that we wouldn’t have enough honey bees for sufficient pollination of our crops. I think it would be longer than “a few years,” more on the order of 10 to 20, before we would once again have enough bees. I think it’s an excellent idea on paper but short-sighted in real life.

In any case, please stay on point. This is a post about lithium chloride. Your comments about treatment or not belongs in a different discussion. Try BeeSource for some lively discussions on treatment free.

Ken
Reply

Rusty,

I have been reading a lot about lithium on BEE-LIST. One thing about the information on BEE-LIST, it always robust. For, Against, Opinions. Many of these people are scientists that seem to have a lot of contact with the USDA and universities. It was also interesting to find out that the new information that the mites feed on the “gut” of bees instead of the blood. At least that’s my take on the explanation.

Most of the time the information is over my head. They are talking PHD stuff down to the “nano” level. If anything, the amount of information coming out all day, every day is overwhelming.

I feel sure that you are a member of BEE-LIST though I don’t think I have every seen a post with your name attached.

It might be a good site for many of your viewers that want an overload of information.

Rusty
Reply

Ken,

It is my understanding that mites feed on fat bodies, not hemolymph. I don’t know about the gut.

As for BEE-L, I used to attempt comments, but they always got deleted. I don’t know why, but I’ve pretty much given up. The only thing I can think of is I broke some kind of unwritten rule? Maybe like 8 or 9 years ago? And now I’m blacklisted? Anyway, I communicate with many of those folks off list, and a number of them comment here. It would take an act of congress to get me to participate over there at this point. But I agree, it is worth reading.

Ken
Reply

My bad. I meant fat, not gut. I have tried to post there myself on a few occasions. They always deleted my posts because it included all of the information from the previous post instead of just my comments and perhaps a small clip(s) with comment(s). I have never been able to do as requested using Gmail. I guess I could make it work using Outlook.

Rusty
Reply

Ken,

Well that’s interesting. Maybe my Gmail is getting me blacklisted instead of my comments. But I always get the feeling they like to keep the group small and exclusive. Maybe someday when I grow up I can be on BEE-L.

ignasi orobitg gene
Reply

I liked reading the article

Don Rideaux-Crenshaw
Reply

The science here is intriguing. Although I don’t do science any more I was academicly trained and know how to read a research paper. I see no glaring errors, nor would I expect to see any in Nature – one of the more prestigious peer reviewed journals.

But I’m not sure I’m willing to call this a “brick”. When your control shows the same effect as your experiment and your experiment includes a complex protocol, you’ve barely begun. Until the research is independently replicated and there is at least a hint of how lithium works its magic, this brick has a significant chance of becoming the stone the builder rejected.

I’m in complete agreement, “Kids, don’t try this at home.” Even if the science is spot on, I’m invoking Murphy’s Law, The Law Of Unintended Consequences and suggesting a careful reading of the lithium chloride material safety data sheet.

Rusty
Reply

Don,

“But I’m not sure I’m willing to call this a “brick”.”

Fair enough.

Ken Matley
Reply

Terrific discussion of this topic! Thank you.

Don Rideaux-Crenshaw
Reply

Allow me a brief treatment-free rant.
1) Evolution trends to be a slow process.
2) There are three possible outcomes of the world going treatment-free:

a) The mites win in the short term, honey bees go extinct, followed soon after by mites.
b) The bees win, become completely resistant, mites go extinct.
c) Bees and mites achieve a new equilibrium; mites become less virulent, bees become more resistant.

The smart money bets on c).

Rusty
Reply

Don,

As you state it, C wins. But the mites aren’t really the problem. It’s the viruses that kill the bees. What if you extinguish the mites and then the viruses find a different pathway to infection?

Andrea
Reply

Thank you for posting this today. That article was all over Facebook. That’s what people do… they want to go try it. My first thought was… let’s wait and see how things pan out.
Thanks again.

Rusty
Reply

Andrea,

I’m not a big Facebook fan, so I had no idea it was a thing over there. On the other hand, I shouldn’t be surprised. People are always looking for an easy way out.

Lloyd Seested
Reply

My bees are a lot of things but not manic, depressed or bi-polar.

Rusty
Reply

Lloyd,

I agree, but I think a lot of beekeepers are exactly that!

Margot Rideaux-Crenshaw
Reply

Love it! And that bee-keepers are, Rusty.

Janet L Kouma
Reply

Interesting, i had not heard of this one yet. my experiment for one hive this year is to grow lavender and spearmint in pots and put several by a hive. I agree we all need to be cautious about trying something this serious.

Debby Newby, Auckland NZ
Reply

correction – the original post
the problems that plaque our society.
s/b plaGue

Rusty
Reply

Oops. Thank you, Debby.

Blaine Nay
Reply

There are plenty of approved, effective products on the market. There is no reason for most beekeepers to use anything else — especially a chemical that is not approved.

Rusty
Reply

Agreed.

Mike Serio
Reply

With this changing the RNA of the bee, it looks like we are creating GMO bees!!??

Dave
Reply

I believe the initial idea was to disrupt the RNA of the varroa not change it or the bee. Either way they realised the effects were at most only 60% kill rate, however instead they realised lithium itself(not something aimed at disrupting the RNA) had a very good kill rate on varroa with a low kill rate on bees (depending on concentration and the mixture/compound used).

That aside, I’m not about to feed my bees a metal!… No idea what it’ll do long term, they say it doesn’t go in wax but it stays in syrup, but bees move syrup around so surely you’d have to remove all stored syrup before you put supers back on. Can’t imagine it does much good for a bees digestion. And as said above there are plenty of approved treatments, and many of them great organic treatments, why put liquid metal in your hive…

craig mcdaniel
Reply

I live in Michigan this is my first year having a hive. It’s the only hive I have. I did insulate the exterior with a metallic wrap I bought from Lowe’s just before winter . Treated them twice in October with 2-week formic acid treatment . Weather here was extremely warm most of the fall into October above 85 Degrees unusual for this climate but forced me to treat late with formic acid …wasn’t familiar with other treatments but was researching finding out what I could have done prior to the fall …I did do a formic acid treatment to the hive in spring though maybe a month into the season . They were a 3lb package I fed all season never taking anything from them at all . Allowed them to build up numbers, added 3rd brood box then at some point 2 supers which they pulled comb on all ..never swarmed . Probably a close call but fed them treated them the best i could left them with all their food stores supers in all wrapped the hive and even implemented Rusty’s insulated blanket for upper ventilation …hoping this hive survives the winter here in Michigan . At the end of the day I guess if they don’t the infrastructure they built will help build new hives but I have read many of your blogs here the only thing I probably regret doing was not researching treatment options and not making more hives the previous year of which may have helped create new ones if others die and learn more.

Rusty
Reply

Craig,

Beekeeping is complex and there is much to learn. You can only absorb so much as a beginner, but the more you learn, the more you can build on that knowledge. Don’t beat yourself up. It sounds like you’re making the right moves.

Dan Stoffel
Reply

As a person with a scientific background, I agree completely that the research about lithium is in its infancy and no one should be doing this on their own especially with honey being a food source with, so far, a good reputation. The paper does seem to be well founded and scientifically rigorous, but at this point, it is only research. Does it have potential? Maybe. Is it ready for Prime Time? No.

As an aside, I do find it somewhat amusing, and a bit instructive that the findings were mostly come upon by accident. Happens more than one might think in the research realm.

Don Rideaux-Crenshaw
Reply

Indeed, the viruses are important players in the evolutionary game and my scenarios don’t account for them. Like every other parasite, they follow Rule Number One – don’t kill your host. We have a pretty limited understanding of the biology of these viral parasites so, lacking better information, viruses jumping hosts is as likely as any other scenario.

Aaron Morris
Reply

Dear Rusty,

I am the Owner/Editor/Moderator of BEE-L. In over 3 decades, only 2 contributors have been “blacklisted” on BEE-L. As Ken noted, the most common reason for a submission to be returned is the submission includes all of a previous post. Otherwise, pretty much anything goes, except rude or profane posts. Ken, in gmail all one need do is enter Ctrl-A to see all of what is in the body of the mail you are composing. Once you see it it is easy to edit what is superfluous.

For the first two decades, BEE-L was hosted at a university and we try to keep the conversation on a university level, but all are welcome, no degree required. Please don’t wait for congress to act, they’re too busy doing nothing already.

Aaron Morris, BEE-L Owner/Editor/Moderator

Rusty
Reply

Aaron,

Thank you. I appreciate your response, but I get the feeling someone sent my comments to you. Spies are everywhere!

You mention submissions being “returned.” I never had one returned. They just disappeared, as into a black hole. Probably profanity.

Debbie
Reply

What’s next, radiation? I agree they should be working more on virus control than putting unnecessary chemicals into the beehives. Don’t the bees have enough of a chemical load to carry as is? Great post.

ET Ash
Reply

Again nice article and your concerns about the use of lithium are precisely the same as mine. Although I possess 3 or 4 (depends on how you count things) university degrees with science in the title I do NOT consider myself a scientist. My wife does qualify in that she has phd on one bit of parchment and a number of peer reviewed articles. The point here is we quite often discuss what qualification does it take to be a scientist and then go back and forth and dissect our definition of the month. Certainly playing in the big leagues does have the side effect of bringing one’s head out of the cloud and giving one a wake up call that the credential and talents you (read I) possess will only get you to the second string bench. Personally i (we) like your definition of science but imho many folks posturing as scientist might rate as science light. Every bee site seems to have their own little crowd of ‘most popular’ and quite frequently even asking one probing question gets you ‘blacklisted’ and 2 may well get you expelled < this behavior on some bee sites is all too familiar and it stands in contrast to the behavior of any real scientist I have known who would consider any question as flattering in that at the very surface it suggest interest in a subject that also interest the scientist. As for myself I long ago figured out my talents was more aligned with application than theory so i have always been most comfortable in digging out the value of a new idea than in creating a new idea. I get the idea from other family members that the personality traits of the 'new idea' and 'the application folks' are quite different < pretty high level technical innovation so we a'int talkin' bees here folks.

PS i had some problem early on posting to bee-line due to excessive length of quotes..perhaps give it another go although after being tossed from bee source for questioning one of the 'in' crowd there i do understand your inclination not to participate.

Rusty
Reply

Gene,

I have to confess to having my own blacklist. It only has three names after 8 years and they all got there the same way: profanely disparaging others who held a different opinion. Instead of attacking the idea, they attacked the person. Really stupid.

But that said, websites are self-sorting. People go where they feel comfortable, and that usually means like-minded people. I try to encourage beekeepers to make choices based on facts and principles, not dogma. But there are plenty of dogma-lovers out there, and they all manage to find a site they like. I really don’t care how people keep their bees, but I prefer they come to a decision based on facts, not rumor. That’s all this site is about.

Debbie
Reply

I can’t even find Bee-List, it says coming soon on website, or goes to selling bee stuff. Also, for the bees to gain enough resistance to the VIRUSES that the mites bring, would take a lot longer than a few years, if any bees even survived to go forward. People I know who have Russians are not fairing any better with so many different viruses. Really, if things don’t change, what has a chance to survive?

Judy Scher
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I love your great commentary on the LiCl paper! I read the paper a few days ago and was very impressed with the research. Whether this eventually works or not, beekeepers should be aware that they haven’t yet tested the honey (or wax) for LiCl. I don’t want it in my body!

-Judy

Anders
Reply

Looks quite legit. 25mM Lithium citrate would be 0.5g in 1L sucrose solution. The biggest problem I see is how to most easily treat the bees for a specific duration without them storing a lot of the solution and using it also later.

One would want to treat over one brood cycle so that capped brood and emerging brood are both treated, or treat during brood pause.

Anders
Reply

Sorry 25mM Lithium citrate would be 5g in 1L sucrose solution (209.923*25*1e-3 = 5.248075)

Li
Reply

Rusty,

Thank you for your reasoned analysis. It saddens me to hear that there are beekeepers eager to use this in their hives. I hope that this story does not become viral in the mainstream press. This will be bad PR for honey. People who are most concerned about what’s in their food make that extra stop at the farmer’s market or health food store to substitute honey for sugar. The specter of lithium-tainted honey may be the last straw for some consumers.

Rusty
Reply

Li,

Well, maybe. I think the last straw will be when the public learns that Purina’s new pollen supplement, Hearty Bee, contains chicken blood.

Granny Roberta in nw CT
Reply

I thought you were joking about the chicken blood pollen supplement, but some googling says that, alas, you were not.

Also, off topic, but do you know/could you write about Saskatraz bees?

Jack Grimshaw
Reply

Search BEE-L.

Gerry B’s description:
https://www.beehealth.guru/forum/beekeeping-publications-and-newsletters/bee-l/91-bee-l-list-server
“not for the timid”

BEE-L is a discussion list based on e-mail that predates FB and other groups, web page forums, and probably web pages themselves. As a result maneuvering is a little difficult. Allen Dicks page Honey Bee World used to have a good tutorial link but I can no longer find it.

Many of the original participants have passed on to that “bee yard in the sky” but their discussions have lived on in the (searchable) archives.

Rusty, the history of BEE-L would make an interesting blog topic by itself.

Not a spy, just promoting informed discussions.

Jack
PS Gene– like your post, esp re:Barry’s site. It used to be different.

Rusty
Reply

Jack,

Interesting idea. Maybe I will tackle that one.

Ralph
Reply

The quality of the science appears to be solid. As the authors state, LiCl is a known chemical used for various conditions in people, so its effects are well-researched. But duplicate testing of LiCl or lithium citrate on bees and mites is necessary for validation. If there is one more tool that can be used against mites, rotating with other treatments to avoid resistance, there is tremendous potential with its use.

Dave
Reply

It is a known use in medicine…found people with illness’ where is decided the side effects are worth it…I don’t need to take lithium so these side effects are not worth it. The uncommon side effects are serious, coma etc however over 10% experience:
Confusion, Constipation, Decreased memory, Diarrhea, Dry mouth, EKG changes, Hand tremor, Headache, Hyperreflexia, Leukocytosis, Muscle weakness, muscle twitching, Nausea, Polydypsia, Polyuria, Kidney toxicity, Vomiting , Vertigo, Weight gain.

And some people want to put this in their honey? Stick with organic treatments.

Alan
Reply

I found in the article that they said they could not find the chemical in the wax.
I did not see any reference to it in honey.
It is interesting reading the comments on this subject.
Thanks

Renaldo
Reply

If you study the history of disease, you will find that 90 percent of victims of new disease (more or less) die. Whether it’s AIDS yellow fever, mumps, the black death, measles, blah, blah. 90 Percent more or less, die. Of the remaining 10 percent, 80 percent of their offspring die. Of the remaining 20 percent, about 70 percent die. And so on. Eventually, the Great Pox which kills 90 percent of its victims, becomes small pox which kills 60 percent of its victims. and so on. No condition that kills 100 percent of its victims survives because if that were simple when its last victim dies, it does too. The question is, do we want to endure such devastating results and how long will it take? My current concern is that here in western Oregon, we have had a very warm winter. The bees fly but find no food, yet they consume their reserves. For me, it’s not about what if in the future, but about what to do now.

Oxleas Wood Apiary
Reply

If the lithium doesn’t work and you have some spare it’s always useful in its deuteride form as fusion fuel of a thermonuclear (H-Bomb) device – even the dreaded V. destructor are unlikely to survive this ultimate form of treatment!

Katharina Davitt
Reply

Hi saw your article. So true. I just gave a presentation on this subject. I dug up more information so I could give a balanced view. What hit me hard was the patent. Not because of the intellectual protection, but because the patent had a few more tests listed. One was on larvae, and it turned out that it killed them 100 percent even with the smallest dose. I feel that should have been in the research document, because it will certainly keep beekeepers away from home brewing some mol mix without having a clue of what they are doing. Here is my link to the presentation. It is ok to delete the link, but perhaps someone learns a thing from it. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1U4uKVZu-G0a1Cdx6w39ph9P2lT5fWuDV/view?usp=drivesdk

Argus
Reply

A lot of comments above refer to not being scientists…as if there is some magical qualification to be annointed to perform experiments. I very respectfully disagree.

I’m going to begin feeding 20 mM lithium carbonate laced sugar water next week for 24 hours to a hive that is already on life support from mites this winter. OA would likely kill them, and it is not warm enough to allow FA to do it’s job. The hive won’t be collected this year anyway, so no real issues of Li toxicity.

I’ve received a lot of deeply emotional and even some bizarre, mentally ill physically threatening criticism this winter from a small group of local hobby beekeepers for my curiosity and private efforts to try this. In the past, it was the introduction of a light titer of atropine in bee syrup to fend off massive expected neonic spray on adjacent property, with some success. Every single hive belonging to others bordering the property was wiped out within roughly 4 days. I was much closer to the application and lost 1 out of four. After speaking about the tragedy and possible interesting results, I was delisted from the large well known local group I belong to. Knowing how to do basic math, being curious, and having good equipment to experiment with is something that generates suspicion.

For the curious, I arranged to have 8 small samples analyzed by LC/MS/MS/MS for $750 for soluble and insoluble Li, including pretreatment controls of wax and stores, and followup post treatment testing at 8 weeks.

If anyone remains curious, I’d be happy to share what I find.

The population size of the study was tiny and inadequate. I plan to see for myself if this is something interesting.

johive
Reply

Hi. I fully agree with your point of view and would like to follow up the result of the analysis if possible.

Thank you and rds

Joel

joel
Reply

Argus,

Do you have any results of the lithium analysis so far?

txs and rds
Joel

Tim
Reply

Hey Rusty! I am looking for a good treatment for mites. I have been considering Formic Pro, but the Queen loss stories have me a bit concerned. What do you use for mites? I used OAV last fall, but am just not a fan of vaporizing wood bleach. Thank you!

Rusty
Reply

Tim,

I rotate my treatments between, thymol, HopGuard, formic, and oxalic dribble. For formic, especially pay attention to temperature parameters. Queen losses are easy to fix in spring but more difficult in fall, so don’t use formic in the fall if you’re worried about queen loss.

Cesare J. ‘Skip’ Del Vaglio
Reply

Not a scientist, but a beek for 8 years still learning. Stumbled on the LiCl paper. My critical read (just learned how to do this recently!) tells me to find supporting tests and trials that support the original research and to WAIT until well-tested and defined acceptable dosages and impacts on wax, pollen, honey and bees have been solidly determined to be, if not non-toxic, at least within an acceptable range; such as treating with formic acid products with little impact on honey because there are trace amounts of formic acid in honey.

But let’s watch the science evolve…

Bojan Neskovic
Reply

It turns out that LiCl also kills larvae very effectively. And at the concentration of 10mMol. So, this brick seems a bit crooked.

Rusty
Reply

Bojan,

You are right. Lithium is a proven larvae killer.

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